When you think of spirituality in painting, particularly during this holiday season, some images readily come to mind, say, Michelangelo’s rendering of Adam being called to life by the touch of God’s: perfectly formed and muscular, yet listless, as if awakening for the first time. In that single image of life transmitted at the touch of a finger, Michelangelo makes divine power visible.
Spirituality can arise in unexpected picture-making, too. Would you believe paintings of buildings? Consider the art of Lyonel Feininger, who painted a lot of buildings with overlapping architectural planes in a semi-abstract style, as if the structures were viewed through a prism. As seen in his recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum, “Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World,” his buildings stay in the mind. Maybe because the shafts of light that shine through the overlapping planes evoke a kind of ethereal air – “the glory there is in Creation,” as he put it.
One doesn’t usually think of buildings and Creation together. Instead of the customary images to convey “the glory there is in Creation” – like those of heavenly skies or figures in states of grace – Feininger used city streets and buildings, forcefully breaking through their surface reality with sharp angles to get to their inside, to get to somewhere past here.
Medieval architecture in the German town of Grosse-Kromsdorf was the main subject for Feininger to get inside of and find the secret of its form, as well as the core of his feelings. Sometimes his fragmentation of a street is so extreme, it gives off a disquieting mood. Other times, tranquility prevails.
The few times that he painted portraits, Feininger got inside of people, too, as if with overlapping mirrors. It was his way of getting closer to their essence. Still, it’s buildings that close in best, especially windows. Writing to his wife, Feininger spoke of his fascination with windows:
“Reflecting windows… even when I was a little boy in the country, how much I loved them. There will be a whole cycle of works in it. I don’t suppose that I shall ever represent human subjects in the normal sense in my pictures; but on the other hand humanity is the only thing that moves me in everything. Without warm feelings I can’t do anything.”
As if to further expound on Feininger’s way of speaking to the human condition through architecture, he told of an incident in his childhood, recounted in Ernst Scheyer’s bio of him:
“On one hot summer day, while his parents were on tour, Lyonel was ‘left behind with friends who had a florist shop on Third Avenue,’ where he was overwhelmed by the scent of tuberoses in funeral wreaths. As he sat in the open doorway he ‘watched the trains go by overhead (Third Avenue Elevator Train), and all the white faces in the windows seemed to him to be ghosts and he began to draw ghosts… Looking across the East River to Blackwell’s Island’ and seeing ’stripe-suited prisoners walking in lock step.
“This made a wretched impression on me – in consequence I took to drawing ghosts for a while and this may have laid the foundation for my later works…”
Feininger borrowed some ideas from the Cubists, but he had his own vision – something seldom seen these days, don’t you agree?